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Jan 5, 2014 09:10 AM

The History of the Salad Bar

The Khantessa and I recently had a brief discussion on the subject of the salad bar's history in the US. Specifically, we wondered when it appeared, and when it became "all the rage." She said she scarcely remembers them before the 1970s, and although I have no consequential memories before late 1970, I suggested that the salad bar probably began in the 1950s.

I'm sure the Hound community can shed light on this topic.

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  1. RJ Grunts in Chicago ( the first restaurant in what became the Lettuce Entertain You group) in the late 70s is the earliest salad bar that I distinctly recall. Perhaps there were earlier ones but it was the one that popularized the genre.

      1. re: c oliver


        That's just American salad bars.

        Just off the top of my head, I'm sure Italians with their antipasti bars would take a bit of umbrage to that, as would many Koreans (read: banchan).

        One should not forget that the globe is round.

        1. re: ipsedixit

          Valid. Do they call it a salad bar in Korea, Spain or Italy?

          1. re: HillJ

            Probably not "salad bar" in those words exactly. :-)

            1. re: HillJ

              I cannot recall ever coming across anything like an American salad bar in Spain (a country I visit at least once a year).

              1. re: Harters

                Me either. That's why I asked ips.

            2. re: ipsedixit

              Er, actually OP IS talking about the US.

              1. re: c oliver

                Again, do you think that antipasti bars were non-existent in the US prior to 1970? Or whatever date it is we are now wrapping our American-centric brains around?

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  Entirely possible that salad bars or antipasti bars were nonexistent in the US (for it IS the US that the OP is addressing). None of us have dined in every restaurant in the 60s, but as a group if salad bars were around, I'd bet that somebody remembers them.

                  1. re: sal_acid

                    Since I was in the American South at that time I'm confident there were no Italian antipasti bars :) And had there been salad bars, I'm guessing they'd have had iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. And a choice of French or 1000 Island dressings.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      In NJ, they would also have carafes of oil & vinegar, croutons, grated cheddar cheese and black olives. 1966. Not anything more than you'd find at an American grocery market like ACME.

                      1. re: HillJ

                        Well, you Yankees were far ahead of us and, since I no long claim the South for a bunch of reasons, you probably still are.

                        1. re: c oliver

                          In 1966, I would have gladly traded places with ya. I thought so much was dull back then, I didn't appreciate it enough.

                        2. re: HillJ

                          Many diners in NJ have offered salad bars for a number of years. One of the best that I've found is the Coach House on Rt 4 in Hackensack.

                          1. re: njmarshall55

                            Excellent point. NJ does love their salad bars.

                        3. re: c oliver

                          In my house we called the dressings red and pink.

                      2. re: ipsedixit

                        I agree that many here have American-centric brains. Could this be because many here LIVE in the US? If we lived in Japan, I am sure we would have Japanese-centric brains. Nothing wrong with that.

                    2. re: c oliver

                      So it wasn't until 1970's that it has become somewhat a business model, right?

                      I wonder if salad bar (the business model) has past its prime or it is still swing up. I have a feeling that it has not past its prime just yet.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        I think it is past it's prime. Though there are still are plenty around. I cite as an example, the demise, at least around here (Austin) of the souper salad restaurants. Basically, just a salad bar with a baked potato and soup bar.

                        1. re: TroyTempest

                          A good point. I still remember dedicated salad bar restaurants like Fresh Choice. These, I don't think, are doing so well.


                          I might have misspoke. I was thinking about the concept of simply having a salad bar. Let's it be a dedicated salad bar restaurant, or having a salad bar as part of a restaurant.

                          I got this notion that many restaurants are incorporating more salad bars as part of the model. However, upon closer thinking, this may not be true.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            Fresh Choice is another one we used to have. It has been gone close to 10 years now, i'll bet. I liked that place.

                          2. re: TroyTempest

                            Whever we go to Arizona we always eat at either Souper!Salad or Sweet Tomatoes. Neither of those salad chains are in Minnesota because we live in one of the few states that pays minimum wage to wait staff.

                            1. re: John E.

                              <one of the few states that pays minimum wage to wait staff.>

                              Why would paying minimum wage to wait staff makes it more difficult to have Salad! or Sweet Tomatoes or Salad or Sweet Tomatoes. I would think having an "all you can eat" salad restaurant means you can hire fewer wait staffs -- since the customers serve themselves.

                              I mean. I am guessing that Minnesota has Chinese buffets and Indian buffets, right?

                              (just curious)

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                I think that customers think you don't have to tip at a serve yourself salad bar, or tip very little. I was always conflicted, because they took your drink order, but that was about it. So i didn't feel like i had to tip as much as a regular waitperson...
                                But, i also don't get why that would knock out the salad bar places.

                                1. re: TroyTempest

                                  We tip well at these places because the number of times they clear the tables they are actually working harder than at a traditional restaurant.

                                2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  The wait staff at these kinds of restaurants clear the tables of plates whenever somebody leaves the table to get more food. The busines model works if the staff is paid $2.37/hour but not at $7.25/hour.

                                  There are aot of national restaurant chains without stores in Minnesota because of the minimum wage for wait staff.

                                  1. re: John E.

                                    Oh, i get it now. In Minn., waitstaff get the minimum wage. Doh!

                                  2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    I forgot to address your last point. There are a lot of Chinese buffets in the Twin Cities, but they are not part of national chains. I think many of them employ a lot of family members, that might be the difference. Years ago, in the 70s, a friend of my father's owned a DQ franchise. He paid his kids $15/hour. It was a business expense but the point was to pay for their college tuition.

                                    There are a few Indian buffet restaurants in the Twin Cities, but not nearly as many as there are Asian restaurants.

                          3. First salad bar/cafeteria I went to was in 1966 inside a bowling alley. Route 22, Mountainside, NJ The Jolly Troll. They even had mechanical Disney-like trolls dressed up in the windows holding food trays. First time I ever touched 'tongs' and took a tray, plate and silver to make up a salad for myself. I remember it very clearly because the neighborhood I lived in was so excited.

                            1. I googled "salad bar history" and found Wikipedia, which names a restaurant that claims to have invented the US salad bar in 1950. I wonder also if the Scandinavian smorgasbord can be counted as an ancestor. I remember smorgasbords in Chicago in the 1940s and surely they were in Sweden before that.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Querencia

                                Q, I just did the same. Here is the wiki link,

                                But I presume that the OP wanted to hear some personal reminisces as she could easily have used google or Wikipedia too.

                                1. re: Querencia

                                  Interestingly, in the region where I grew up, Smorgasbord was the word routinely used for a hot buffet, particularly Chinese ones. It was often abbreviated to the oh-so-appetizing "smorg".

                                  But while the local chinese smorgasbords usually had salad bars, a salad bar alone was not a smorg.

                                  1. re: Querencia

                                    A nice Danish restaurant in Manhattan called The Copenhagen had a real smorgasbord format in the 60's -huge shrimp, herring, salmon, all iced down. Chuck's Steak House in New Haven had a salad bar at that time.

                                  2. Just wanted to say I Loooove this thread.
                                    Kinda makes me all gooshy-warmy like leg-warmers and Jane Fonda.

                                    Ahhh,... The Salad Bar.

                                    Too young to remember the 70's. I do recall they were very popular in the 1980s. Plenty of iceberg lettuce and boiled eggs and canned/drained chickpeas. Croutons and bacon-bits. Oh yeah......

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: pedalfaster

                                      Yes! The 80's saw salad bars as regular feature at fast food places such as Carl's Jr. and Wendy's